There were a number of old wooden signs that pointed the way to it. They could be found at crossroads, jutting from the grass verges, listing the local towns and villages on their pointing fingers. At the bottom, in small letters, one would invariably find:
I soon began to realise that it was always four miles away in any given direction, and I became curious. If I followed a sign along a rural road, the adjoining high hedges and hawthorn trees soon blurred together, obscuring any view of the land itself, and eventually the next crossroads would appear, with another sign leaning at a rakish angle, proclaiming Corwick could be found back the other way. Four miles away, of course.
But then I found it.
Teri brings my tea in a bowl.
“Are you comfortable?” she asks me, as she checks my tubes. She is only one of the many carriers, but perhaps she is my favourite because she will converse, although we have little to talk about. I am as comfortable today as I was yesterday, and for the years that preceded it—that is to say, comfort is not a quality that applies to my situation.
“Yes, thank you,” I say. “And how are you? How are your children?”
“Oh, growing.” She tips the bowl so I can drain the last drops, and then moves it to between my legs. I urinate until the bowl is full once more, and she takes it away. I lie still, on my cushions. There is no need to move.
Walking was once my pastime, my hobby, my joy. I loved to stamp over the South Downs, following ancient tracks and finding rare flowers—looking up to the sky and spying a freewheeling buzzard, or placing a hand on a yew tree as old as the county itself.
Yew survives for thousands of years. It is the hardiest of woods, as strong as iron, and it makes for a dense black forest. It was used by the archers at Agincourt; they shaped it to make their longbows. My father told me that. He approved of my wanderings, and of stories of past deeds, of identity and English courage. He was a historian, widely read, planting his ideas in his long, heavy books. For him, history and the land were the same thing. We come from the earth and we return to it, my boy, he said to me, towards the end. He meant Sussex earth, of course. He specified it, in his will.
The walk from the graveyard to our house, on the edge of the Downs, was not a long one, but I found more steps to add to it every Sunday, in my free time. I pored over local maps to identify ancient public paths that would take me on circuitous routes, and when I ran out of those I took to simply climbing over barbed wire and blockades, laid by farmers, and trampling their crops if they would plant to the very edges of the fields. I once heard shouting behind me—This is private! Private land! And I ran, ran fast, into a nearby copse where I found metal feeders for pheasants dotted here and there, and I kicked them all over, and took great pleasure in doing so. There was the raucous cackling of those brainless birds, and the swift shushing of their wings as they flew away from me. I did not see them. There are so many things, in the shades of trees grown close, that one does not see.
Corwick, for instance: I was blind to it until I was upon it. I was striding through a valley, the trees twisted, offering a dark but welcome protection from the threatening rain. The plan was to skirt Chichester, but then I came across a sign, telling me that Corwick was ahead. One of the old wooden ones, of course, the letters carved upon it, standing nowhere near any path that I could see. There was no mention of miles, and I soon discovered that was because it was simply around the next bend, laid out before me, waiting.
It was the remains of a farm, back then. The stone barns and outbuildings had collapsed roofs, and the thatch of the main house was threadbare, pulled askew in chunks by nesting birds. The windows were dark and the lower part of the front wall bulged outwards; I had the immediate impression that the house itself had slumped, given up. The lack of movement or animal life only confirmed my first impression; this smallholding had long stood dormant.
I would simply have walked past and tried to find my way back to a familiar path, if a young man had not opened an upstairs window and called down to me.
“Friend or foe?” he said, cheerfully.
I had never been asked such a question before. I must admit my previous encounter with that shouting voice—private land! was in my mind. I was a trespasser; only the smile of the man suggested I would be treated otherwise.
“I must have taken a wrong turn somewhere,” I replied. “Could you tell me, am I near Kingley Vale?”
“You’re in Corwick, and welcome. Hold there.” He withdrew from the window, and I waited.
Time spent waiting is strange time, insular, when the very functions of the body are at their most noticeable. My skin prickled in the light rain; my calf muscles ached from my long ramble; my heart was beating hard, and fast: was I anxious? I was. I swallowed. I shifted my weight from foot to foot, and rubbed my palms together.
The oak door of the farmhouse eased back with a squeak, and the young man stood there, dressed in white—a long apron, I realised, over unremarkable shirt and trousers. He was wiry, and had long, muscular arms. “You’ve walked far, I’ll venture,” he said. “The weather’s turning, too.”
“It was fine when I set out this morning,” I told him. The sun and the rain: these are safe topics for any Englishman.
“Well, it’s good to see someone still roaming the old paths. We don’t get visitors.”
“No. It’s strange,” I said, “how often I’ve not found this place, only to come across it now, by chance.”
“You have been looking for it, before?”
“No. Well, no. The signs would point it out, is all.”
“You saw signs?” He did not wait for me to reply; his gaze moved upwards, to the sky, and he said, “I think it’s about to pour. Come in for a while, and wait for it to pass, if you like.”
He was right. The quality of the light had changed, casting the old farmhouse in a darker hue. A sudden squall of wind snatched at the front door, but the man held it steady. “I could make tea,” he said.
I took up his offer, not knowing what a rarity it was. I stepped over the threshold, and stood within Corwick for the first time.
Nature makes many rules that we all must follow. It commands us to its bidding. But, like all who control others, it may yet grow an empire that is too vast for it to oversee, and then there may be gaps, holes, secret places, through which one can escape. I believe that. I will continue to look for my own escape. One must have something to look forward to.
Corwick is a city now.
The view from the window of my room is not one of forests and country fields any more. Instead there is the tight jumble of many buildings of varying heights, and I look down over all of them. The window will not open, but even through its thick glass I can hear the hum of ceaseless traffic, far below, on the streets that weave through the city like thread. Bright signs for goods give colour here and there; I am above the shopping centre, Teri once told me. The farmhouse has become a skyscraper, and this is a penthouse. The words are unfamiliar. I did not ask how she came to know them.
Further out I can see the shining glass and sharp angles of a business district, and further still, the curving rows of house upon house, delineated by strips of grass and the occasional tailored green patch of a park. This stretches away for as far as I can see; house after house after house. Corwick has become a monster.
I have never cared much for cities.
I visited Bristol, once, when I was young. My father was addressing a conference at the University there, and took me along. It was soon after mother’s death, I remember, and I was a nervous, unsettled boy, ill at home in the sounds and smells outside Temple Meads. We passed a bakery and, thinking to cheer me up I suppose, my father took me inside and bought me a concoction of cream and custard spread between fine layers of flaky pastry, cut into a rectangle, dusted with sugar.
This is the benefit of the urban life, he said. There can be so many more choices.
I devoured the treat. But, afterwards, on the long train journey home, it occurred to me that it had only tasted as good and lasted as long as the buns that could be bought from our local bakery. I said as much to my father, and he smiled, and shrugged, and said—So you would choose the smaller life, my boy. But change will not be stopped, and so you must find things to like about it, or be unhappy. It is an inevitability.
I did not believe his words, then. It strikes me, now, as faintly ridiculous that I did not see how everything must grow, then shrink. My long walks in the woods should have taught me how leaves proliferate and then die back with the seasons, over and over.
Many who inhabit Corwick choose to eat cream and sugar and pastries every day, I’ll wager. They grow, and the city grows. I wonder what comes next, when there is nothing left to be swallowed.
The river runs under it all, and through everything. Pipes transport it to homes and businesses alike in vast quantities. It flows, it gushes, even into me.
I have thought of taking out the tubes that connect my body to the river, and throwing myself from the window, if only I could open it. This could be my escape, if only there was enough time to act before the arrival of the guards and carriers en masse to stop me.
There was a time, long ago it seems, when Corwick was not yet a town. I found the courage to wrench one of the slippery tubes from my arm. I have never felt such pain as it popped free, and I clamped my hand to the spot on my forearm where it had been fed into my skin. But blood did not flow from me. Instead the brown liquid of the river gushed from the writhing tube, rhythmically spurting on to the floor. A great sense of ugliness overcame me. The tube heaved and bucked; it took me many tries to catch it, hold it. I put my thumb over the end and ceased the flow, and at that moment the guards arrived in great number—I had not realised how many there were! So many bodies employed in my defence. They searched my room for threats, and I was amazed at the commotion I had caused. Then the carriers came, and soothed me, and reinserted the tube with gentle hands. I realised I was not alone, even though I spent nearly all of my time in solitude. I took comfort in their ministrations. I even felt gratitude. I began to understand that I was essential.
I feel less moved by that thought, nowadays.
It is evening.
Teri returns, to see to my care. She proffers my drink, then collects my flow. She looks tired, older, but she serves me without hesitation.
I look down at my own body, and it strikes me that I am older too. My skin has become dusky, grey, like the sky before rain (I think it’s about to pour. Come in for a while, and wait for it to pass, if you like, said the guard, and I stepped inside: why did I step inside? It was my role, was it not? I would have answers, and there are none, none, none) and when I shift my weight upon my cushion I feel a deep, slow ache building inside me.
“I am ageing,” I tell her. “One day soon you will be done with me.”
“You are my heart,” she says, as if that is all the reply I should need.
“Help me to the window?” I ask. “Please?”
“Of course.” She helps me up, and I cross to the view, taking care not to knock my tubes.
Corwick is bright, and busy. The streets are jammed with cars, and I hear impatient hoots; they want to be about their business. They are part of a mechanism they do not understand. All is well. Impatience is a sign of a thriving multiplication, and they will reach their destinations eventually.
But then I see how the limits of the city have changed. The furthest estates are shrouded in darkness, where streetlights should keep them aglow. And the houses there are not lit from the inside. There is no orange stream of warmth from each window, or even the blue glow of the devices they watch.
They are empty. And there is new growth approaching. The forest presses closer.
Corwick is shrinking.
I tremble. I turn, to escape the sight, too quickly, and Teri is there, beside me, supporting me. Then others arrive, including the guards, and there is the usual commotion to return me to the cushions and check for danger. The room seems less busy than I would expect. Are there less guards and carriers to care for me? Are they responding with less urgency than I am used to?
“I’m fine,” I tell them, as they settle me back in place. I see them exchange glances, when they think I am not looking.
I know what thoughts are running through their mind. For myself, my thoughts are only of the beginning. I suppose that is to be expected.
I heard the groan as I sat in the small, rustic parlour of the old farmhouse, waiting for the man in the white apron to bring tea. Outside, the rain had turned to sleet, and then to thick snowfall, which surprised me greatly; it was only the beginning of autumn, and yet the flakes were congregating fast on the window panes, and the room had turned very cold.
I did not react to that first sound, which came from directly above. I assumed an elderly relative lay in bed there. It was not my place, surely, to go to see to his needs, or to interfere with the running of the house.
A second moan, louder, brought me to my feet. I heard pain within it, and so did others, it seemed, for suddenly there was a parade of people in white, running past the doorway, and then the drumming of their boots upon the stairs.
I did not know what to do. I considered letting myself out of the house and setting off in any direction, hoping to find familiar ground once more. But it seemed impolite, and so I crossed to the bottom of the stairs, and looked up to the landing.
The moaning had stopped.
“Can I be of assistance?” I called.
“Come up,” I heard. “Come up.” I thought it was the voice of the man who had welcomed me, and I started up the stairs, looking at the plainness of the walls, and the tall, high beams of the ceiling. Each step creaked; what a weary sound. I felt the entire structure would be happy to collapse around me.
On the landing, I caught a glimpse of white, and followed it through a doorway to a room in which ten, or maybe twelve, people stood in a circle. They parted as I approached, and I found myself looking down upon a naked elderly man, sprawling on a large tasselled cushion of deep red velvet. Thick tubes had been inserted into his spindly limbs. They snaked across the wooden floor to disappear into the walls. I thought they were perhaps part of his treatment, and these people were doctors and nurses. They had a serious yet capable demeanour.
He said something, quietly. He did not seem to have the breath to make more noise, so I knelt down beside him.
“You’re here,” he said.
I thought he had mistaken me for someone else, and I was reminded of my own father’s death, when, at the end, he had not called me his son but said, My dear sir, my dear sir, over and over again to me as if I was a stranger. The hospital nurse had urged me to accept it as a part of the process, and so I had replied in a similar manner, as one gentleman to another, to save embarrassment. Now it felt kind to assume an intimacy that did not exist for the sake of one who thought otherwise.
“Yes,” I said. “I’m here.”
“I’m so glad. You’re late, surely? I’ve been waiting so very long.”
“I’m sorry to have taken my time.”
“Oh no,” he said, suddenly gaining a moment of startling vivacity. “No, you are not sorry. Not yet.” Then he slumped backwards, his eyes closing, and I reached out to him, seeing my father there, and took his hand.
The tubes, as one, released him, coming free with a soft, sucking sound, and a moment later I felt them plunge into my own arms and legs. I was captivated by the way they penetrated me; the sensation was strong, but not painful. I fought, I think, although I do not remember it; I hope I did. Yet my attention was fully focused on the act of integration that was taking place, and the figures in white were visible in my peripheral vision, tidying away the remains of the old man, cutting me free of my clothes, lowering me on to the cushion.
Some time later, I became aware of Teri. She was holding my hand. I heard movement outside the window; horses and carts, perhaps. The room looked bigger, and the sunlight stronger. I felt ensconced, within the farm. I felt its energy, and it felt mine.
“Corwick grows,” she said.